Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Framing Science - so you can understand

I was reading though The Intersection and came across this list kind of explains the importance of Framing Science. This is a big deal to me. Sharing science with under-represented and under-served audiences is my focus. I am especially committed to African-American audiences (regardless of SES). The truth is, most Americans are scientifically illiterate. But, I have found that regardless of economic, political, social or even educational status, most African-Americans are not very scientifically literate. That's scary, because even within other demographics, things shake out across SES lines. So this signals a great need to provide across the board attention to the whole demographic.

Here is a part of the post from that blog that lists 8 issues related to Framing Science. Emphasis and comments in colored text are mine.

1. We have long-running politicized science controversies on subjects like evolution and climate change, with separate polarized camps and the repeated use and misuse of complex scientific information in the arguments. Yes, to true. The African-American community does have some experience with the evolution issue and right now, most are out of the climate change and environmental game. We are consistently late on adding out 2 cents in on global issues that aren't specifically "black issues". I have peeves with this, see previous post. Back to the evolution issue. Like most Americans, Black Americans are largely confused about this scientific concept and most of what people think they understand comes from equally uninformed church leaders and other cognitive novices.

2. Wonks and science enthusiasts--and ScienceBloggers!--can parse these arguments. But most members of the general public are unlikely to grasp the fine scientific details, and--having neither the time nor the interest to deeply inform themselves about them--are more likely to make up their minds about these complex issues in the absence of real detailed knowledge about them. So true. I feel the same way about the economic news and the Bloomberg report. Like I care to know all of the caveats and nuances. But, I recognize there are caveats and nuances. So, I don't take that for granted when I do hear/read economic news. The point here is that I understand that people don't want or need all of those details. The trick is to inform them without boring them or oversimplifying the info.

3. Rather, these members of the public will rely on cues, cognitive shortcuts, and sources of information that may not be scientific--e.g., church leaders, neighbors, Fox News. They will use these information sources, in combination with their partisan, ideological, or religious backgrounds, to make up their minds. I co-sign, see my comment for #1. One big issue is the fact that most people (especially Blacks) don't have any 'science authorities or leaders' they can quote. So, it is hard to refute the arguments if you have no one (whom everyone may also be able to relate to) to quote as saying, "this is the way it is" or offer people another way to look at things. Overall, better Science PR is needed to elevate the status if science and science professionals in the African-American community.

4. Furthermore, in the fragmented media system, many members of the public can opt out of receiving high quality scientific information entirely--and often do. They can just turn the channel. They can watch the Food Network. or BET. Gotta love free-market system. I've made comments on this topic of framing before, see previous post.

5. Therefore, if--if--you want to get beyond audiences of science enthusiasts who understand the fine details, and move this broad public on these highly complex and politicized issues, you have to do more with your communication strategy than simply informing people about the details of science. I agree and that's the hard part. Though this is something I want to do, I struggle with it.
For one, scientists are trained to provide the information, not shape your opinion. I think it is an Achilles heal of the profession. "Let the results speak for themselves" is a common quote. Interpret results, but don't go too far. Most scientists are careful about over-stepping or making too much out of something. It's considered inappropriate to overstate the importance or impact of your results. Conservatism. Hmmm, what to do? Because the other side has NO problem explaining inferences and guesses as fact.

6. Rather, you have to pare down these highly complex issues--or "frame" them--selectively highlighting just those aspects of the issue that will resonate with the core values of the particular audience (and there are different audiences, of course, and different frames will work for them). Working on that.

7. Furthermore, you have to reach a given audience through the media outlets it is actually going to--and that will often not be scientific media, ScienceBlogs, etc. True. Meet people where they are. But here is the rub. Blogging maybe a special case. Though the internet is popular, many black people I know (in the real world) largely underutilize the internet and it's related technologies. With the exception of email, texting, mobile phone calls, and entertainment (music, videos, you tube and celebrity gossip) most are clueless. For example, they may have heard the term blog, but don't know what it is, how to use it and definitely don't comprehend the power of it. I often break news to my friends and they are always shocked and say "how did you know that?!" So, despite LOVING the internet and blogging, to meet my audience where it is means - the TV, the radio, and "ghetto newspapers". Sorry EBPs, I've got to try to reach our other brethren, too.

8. All of this leads to the following conclusion: With various types of intensive (and expensive) research--polling, focus grouping, media research, frame analysis, etc--it ought to be possible to come up with a communication strategy that should work on a given scientific issue. However, these strategies will often not involve talking about the technical details of science. Often, it will be important to emphasize other aspects of the issues--moral, economic, and so on. I'm working on this, too. Wish me luck. Better yet, let me know when I'm 'relating' to you.

Stay informed.


MartinC said...

I've had some arguments in the past with Nisbet regarding the central point of critical thinking (its my opinion that we need to teach this as a standard way of approaching the world). Nisbet said he thought this was pointless - an unachievable goal.
Yet without this how can we be doing anything other than temporarily overcoming short term problems that reappear with the next irrational claim?
I agree with you that more role models would be useful but there is an inherent problem with that point.
Scientific research, as a profession, developed from the hobbies of rich men and as such has never been the sort of thing that guarantees a steady income or prospect of economic security. The scientific career is a good demonstration of social darwinism in action - extreme competition for limited resources (and unlike nearly every other profession scientific researchers do not only compete against their local competitors but scientists from all over the world (just look at the number of Chinese - for example -researchers in the USA compared to the number of Chinese lawyers or architects) and a very high failure rate. If you are in the top 50% of law graduates you are guaranteed to be financially secure. For science it is something like the top 5% (and even then the income compares to the bottom 10% of lawyers).
As such science is a very risky profession for someone who is not economically secure at the outset and this leads to a continuation of the cycle of certain sections of the population avoiding this career. In fact being more open and truthful about the job security aspect of scientific research would in my opinion result in a drop in the numbers taking up the profession.
I'm beginning to see where 'framing' might help.

The Urban Scientist said...

MartinC - thanks. Critical thinking is key. That's what wrong with t e world, too mnay cognitive novices, rather cognitive misers. What I like best about science is the fact that it (perhaps more than any other school subject) cultivates critical thinking skills. I tell people "Science is verb. It's what I do". Science is observing, paying attention, thinking, writing, reading, revising, caluculating, formulating.

I love science. But alas, you're right, careers in science does tend to tip on the self-actualization part of the Maszlo triangle.

But I won't give up. There ARE great role models of STEM that come from the Entire human family - black, white, brown, yellow, red, middle-class, working class, yuppies, etc.

The thing is to not be afraid to talk about the race, class, geographic, and gender influences/culture of scientists. Not seeing color or sex or region of origin is a great thing. It implies that a person is fair. But recognizing someone as unique or even different isn'tinherently an insult. At least not to me.